She wanted more than anything to be Dawnged to her mother now: a gift, a blessing. She was tired of striving, tired of the sideways look of those who did not trust her. She wanted to belong; to sit before the hearth and dip soup from the hanging bowl, or sit cross-legged before her mother who perched on a stool that she, her daughter, had made, to hear Elen use her name, Peretur . . .
I loved Nicola Griffith’s Hild, so I ordered Spear as soon as it was available last year and started reading it as soon as my copy arrived — only to find myself bogged down in, rather than entranced by, the language. Where Hild invited me to luxuriate in its vivid exposition and lured me through its sometimes bewildering complexity with its powerful characterization of Hild herself, Spear seemed mannered, even portentous, at first:
So it was that her mother, to keep the girl interested, taught her the language of books, and with great reluctance showed the girl her chest of scrolls. “These are tales of the world,” she told her. “All the adventure, all the different and new you need.” The tales of heroes and great deeds, and the riddles and tragic tales, did interest the girl, but many were stories of how to bind a wound and grow a garden, how to husband a flock and dress a fresh-killed fowl, and she already knew these things. And all the people in the stories had names, and she did not; and she would never find her name here in the cave.
I gave up on Spear last year, but I came back to it this weekend and it went much better, though I never quite lost the sense that there was too much artifice in its style, and also that it is as much the working out of a concept as the realization of a fiction with its own organic necessities.
The concept is explained in some detail in the Author’s Note at the end: it is Griffith’s contribution to Arthuriana, her own version of the story of Percival. Like Hild, Spear is thoroughly researched — not just the other versions of the Arthurian legend but also the “material culture” of the period in which Griffith places her story, the early 6th century. You can see the results in her description of Caer Leon, which has the same tactility as the more abundant exposition in Hild:
In the inner fort was the king’s hall and byre, lesser buildings for the Companions and their folk, for many had wives and, some few, children; there was a well, bread ovens, a granary, may small plots for fresh herbs, a still room, and food cellars dug deep in the dirt. A rooster crowed; a chicken, still half asleep, pecked; soon geese would waddle and the goats come pitter-pat to the midden to chew side by side, staring with their yellow, slot-centred eyes.
Griffith brings the same dedication of detail to the fight scenes, which are brutal but also fluid in a way that reflects Peretur’s mystical connection to nature and especially to animals, including the horse she rides in a dramatic test bout with Lanza (better known to most of us as Sir Lancelot). And she brings a commitment to another kind of historical accuracy: inclusion. “This could not be a story of only straight, white, nondisabled men,” she explains;
Crips, queers, women and other genders, and people of colour are an integral part of the history of Britain — we are embedded at every level of society, present during every change, and part of every problem and its solution. We are here now; we were there then. So we are in this story.
This presence is embodied in Peretur herself, who passes as a man and fights as a knight but is a woman and loves women, especially Nimuë, the Lady of the Lake. Griffith also revises key conventions of the heroic quest plot: “her real goal is connection.”
There’s plenty of drama in Spear as Peretur faces antagonists from bandits to supernatural agents. Because it’s novella length, it moves very quickly through the action, and as a result the personal relationships meant to give it emotional depth — particularly with her mother but, in some ways more urgently, with Nimuë — felt underdeveloped, too thin to do the affective and thematic work they seemed meant to. And to the end I could not shake my slight dissatisfaction with the prose. I think Griffith may have been deliberately aiming for a cadence that would sound faintly archaic, to give us the feeling that we were dipping back into legend:
And so between them Nimuë and Myrddyn found the stone and the sword, and one day she looked deep into him and saw all that he had done, and would do with the power of the treasures of the Tuath.
Maybe this style is typical of fantasy, which is not a genre I typically read; I don’t much like it. But there were also moments of bright simple clarity:
The late afternoon sky over the lake this time was grey, but the water laughed and sparkled, reflecting the blue sky and summer sunshine of some other time and place. Peretur watched the flickers of light and thought perhaps her mother looked down from that place, giving her blessing.
I have just started reading Dick Francis and came across your Top 10 post which has led me to read more of your posts and discover that I share a lot of your tastes.
I started reading in English when I was about 17 because Sense and sensibility was an optional reading for an English language exam I was taking. Jane Austen led me to George Eliot and then to Dorothy L Sayers and many more but for a long time I read nearly exclusively SF and Fantasy by female writers and reading this post, I wonder if you have ever read Lois McMaster Bujold who is my favourite writer.
Now that I am a middle aged woman, my favourite of hers is Paladin of Souls but really I love them all.